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Oscar night is known for its glamor. “Who are you wearing” becomes a popular question to ask nominees as they make their way down the red carpet. But on screen, clothes do more than make actors look good. They certainly do that, but they also tell us something about the characters who wear them. They reveal things, telling the story visually like every other element of a production.
More than any other category, period pieces tend to dominate here. In many years, all five titles could have been classified as period. While there is usually room for one or occasionally even two fantasy nominees, such titles are not as welcome here as in, say, Best Production Design. Moreover, contemporary films tend to be cited no more than a few times a decade. Indeed, no such film was nominated between 1994 and 2006! Within this realm of “period,” clothes which are foreign and/or exotic are especially welcome, as is royalty.
The branch certainly cites its favorite costume designers frequently enough. Even so, room is always made for at least one, and usually two or three, new nominees each year. Also, with a few notable exceptions -- such as Sandy Powell and Colleen Atwood -- it is rare for a costume designer to have more than three or four nominations.
One other important fact should be said about this category. Much like Best Makeup and Hairstyling, the branch tends to concentrate on the work, regardless of a film's acclaim. While being a Best Picture nominee or crafts category behemoth, as always, is a bonus, it is not as helpful as in other categories. Dreadful and/or divisive films are frequently cited, and it is commonplace for at least one, if not two or three (as occurred last year), nominees to be the only nomination received by their films.
The one nomination this year that I’m confident can be taken to the bank is Jacqueline Durran for “Anna Karenina.” Having been nominated for both “Atonement” and “Pride & Prejudice,” Durran seems destined for her third nomination and potentially her first win for her latest collaboration with Joe Wright. This film has extremely showy costumes that are both period and foreign. And by all accounts the work is superb. Even the film’s detractors have nothing but praise for Durran’s achievement.
Durran is not the only two-time nominee named Jacqueline in the race this year as Jacqueline West designed the threads for Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” Previously cited for “Quills” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” West did an exceptionally good job of recreating the fashion of the late 1970s. The outlandish movie costumes were also a hoot. This led another recent 1970s-set Best Picture nominee to a somewhat surprising nomination here a few years ago: "Milk." I’m not sure if “Argo”’s designs will leave lasting memories but the work is very accomplished nonetheless and I expect the film to do very well with AMPAS.
Julie Weiss is another two-time nominee in the race. She recreated classic Hollywood in “Hitchcock.” The film isn’t loved but most people have found it enjoyable enough, and it highlights various elements of movie-making. I think it will struggle to find nominations outside its leading actors and makeup (and even those are far from assured), but if there was a fourth place I could see a nod, it would be here.
Keeping with this theme of two-time nominees for one more contender, I must mention Sharen Davis’s costumes for Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Nominated for both “Dreamgirls” and “Ray,” Davis will bring us back to 1800s America. Tarantino films always give designers opportunity to show their talents. Remarkably (or some would say pathetically), none of his films has made the final five in either Best Production Design or Best Costume Design. But I think this title has a good chance of changing that, especially if it is a hit. But even if not, the costumes may stick out. As I said, this branch doesn’t care about a film’s overall reception the way many others seem to.
Also set in the 1800s, albeit a continent away, is Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables.” Not only is this potential crafts category sweeper appropriately period, but it also belongs to the musical genre, one of this branch’s favorites. Paco Delgado has made a name for himself in Spanish-language films and this could well be his first Oscar nomination. He’ll have to design for many classes in French society. I expect him to earn his first nomination, and I’d probably rank him behind Durran in terms of likelihood.
Also seeking a first nomination for an 1800s-set film is Joanna Johnston for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.” Johnston has done great work over the past quarter-century with both Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. On “Lincoln,” she showed us not only soldiers (whose uniformed nature tends to make getting a nomination in this category difficult) but also the political leaders and common people of the day. The work is still not as showy as others in contention. But I’d say it is still Johnston’s best chance to (finally) earn her first nomination.
Almost a century later in American history is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.” Clearly headed to multiple nominations in the acting categories and screenplay, the recreation of post-World War II America was helped immeasurably by Mark Bridges’ superb yet never distracting costumes. Bridges won this award last year for “The Artist.” Even so, he had never been nominated before, despite having done outstanding work for years. So maybe his style doesn’t really tickle the branch’s fancy? We’ll see.
Eiko Ishioka is another one-time nominee/winner (“Dracula”) who has been snubbed in the past for exquisite work. Sadly, she passed away in January. Though this exceptional Japanese costume designer had already completed her work on “Mirror Mirror.” While I would normally say this film would be forgotten, untimely deaths can make crafts colleagues remember those they’ve wronged in the past. For instance, Marit Allen received her long overdue nomination posthumously for “La Vie en Rose.” So this Snow White tale could result in Ishioka’s final nomination.
Of course, that's not the only Snow White adaptation this year. Colleen Atwood did typically brilliant work on “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Atwood is one of the staples of this category, with nine nominations and three wins to date. If this film can survive anywhere, expect it to be here. Even so, she isn’t nominated for everything – no costume designer is. Nor does Rupert Sanders command the respect that the directors of some other random nominees in this category have, such as Baz Lurhmann, Jane Campion or Julie Taymor. Despite these reservations, however, I believe Atwood is firmly in the running.
Atwood had to blend period and fantasy. Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud did the same on “Cloud Atlas.” In a panoply of eras, this duo created costumes that even detractors of the film have gone out of their way to praise. Barrett wasn’t nominated for her iconic work on “The Matrix” films, and Gayraud has also never been nominated despite doing superb work for over two decades. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if this will rectify that. The work is so memorable. The film’s flop status is a hindrance but, as I said earlier, that’s not devastating in this category.
I’ll end with a title that this site has been predicting for weeks in what is, in my opinion, an inspired call. “A Royal Affair” seems poised to be a major contender in the race for Best Foreign Language Film. As stated at the outset, this category loves period royalty. And it has an affinity for foreign work. I’m not saying a film like this could be “locked” in this category. But this strikes me as a strong contender.
Those are the top 11 players in my opinion. I could likely add more but most of these seem such strong contenders already. We’ll see what the Academy nominates in two months time. Who do you expect to see on top?
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